What is the impact of copyright on literature and arts?

Lucia Qureshi discusses the most notable copyright disputes of late and the impact such disputes can have on artists

Lucia Qureshi
23rd February 2021
At the beginning of 2021, The Great Gatsby reached its copyright expiration date, opening the flood gates for a world of prequels, sequels, adaptations, and fanfics – you name it, someone will either have written it or be in the process of writing it. With this phenomenon unfurling as I type, readers might be left with the question, but what does this mean for literature and the arts more generally?

Well, some readers might remember that recently Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate sought to sue Netflix over Enola Holmes, alleging that the film “infringed copyright by depicting a warmer and more emotional version of Sherlock Holmes.” Essentially, the estate believed that the adaptation’s representation of Holmes was a far-cry from how he appeared in the original Sherlock Holmes stories which, whilst in the UK are no longer covered by copyright laws given that it has been more than 70 years since Doyle’s death, 10 still remain under copyright in the US. At a more theoretical and abstract level, this lawsuit was therefore underpinned by the notion that an author should have control over their characters, and their work more broadly (or at least in this case their surviving relatives who had little to no influence over the stories originally).

Henry Cavill as Sherlock in Enola Holmes (IMDb)

The point I’m making is that there are a variety of complicated and interesting aspects of copyright law and how it relates to ideas surrounding ownership and control over texts. It is important to keep in mind, however, that literature is separate from the author. Yes, they stand to profit from their work, yes it contains their ideas and yes, these texts have been used to make judgements and assumptions about the author. But at the same time, once these ideas are out in the world as literature, they are outside of the individual. Or at least, to some extent they are.

For comparison’s sake, we might think of other instances in which notions of ownership and copyright have affected the arts. Take Banksy, for instance. Banksy creates street art that satirises and critically comments on global issues. By using public buildings as his canvases, Banksy’s art is also very susceptible to being used by others. This recently happened when Banksy, (“who famously once said that ‘copyright is for losers’”) unsuccessfully contested the use of his ‘Flower Thrower’ work by Full Colour Black card company. Part of Banksy’s lack of success was down to his refusal to reveal his identity, and therefore, as the judges suggested, “'he cannot be identified as the unquestionable owner of such works as his identity is hidden’.” An interesting concept is highlighted by this ruling, the idea that a creator’s ownership of their work is closely tied up in having an identifiable creator in the first place. In this case, Banksy's anonymity provides an obvious obstruction to this aim. But what happens when the identity of the creator is under dispute?

It is important to keep in mind, however, that literature is separate from the author.

There are a variety of instances in which this has occurred, with famously a group of individuals disputing the authorship of the poem ‘Footprints’ being but one example. Furthermore, even when the creator of a work can be identified, it is important to remember that there is no such thing as true originality. Most artists and authors would recognise the fact that they were at least inspired by (maybe even adapting) someone else’s work. Even those that don’t acknowledge this were certainly influenced in some way by something else, even if they were not conscious of it. The point being, that (at the core of copyright laws) we might assume a creator’s control over the use of the work based on the fact that they have exercised control over its creation and thus distinct from anyone else’s work. However, the arts are never this simple.

Featured Image: 'Flower Thrower' from Flickr

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